An article appeared today on ‘Think Africa Press’, an influential online magazine which covers global African news. They have posted a detailed piece on their website following the USN demonstration in London last week. The journalist, Luke Lythgoe, attended the event at Parliament Square and uses the demonstration as a platform from which to discuss the entire situation in Djibouti, with a focus on the government’s forceful repression.
At The President’s Pleasure: Post-Election Repression in Djibouti
On February 22, Djibouti held landmark elections. For the first time since 2003, the country’s parliamentary elections were actively contested, and for the first time since independence opposition candidates won seats in the National Assembly.
Despite this, however, the official announcement that President Omar Ismail Guelleh’s Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) had won 43 of the 65 parliamentary seats triggered accusations of foul play.
The opposition, led by a coalition of parties known as the Union for National Safety (USN), insisted that Guelleh’s apparent popularity at the polls was in stark contrast to his popularity on the streets – with ordinary Djiboutians increasingly suffering from poor standards of living, a faltering economy, and widespread human rights abuses – and organised protests against what they saw as fraudulent elections.
The government responded with repression. Since the disputed election results were announced, hundreds of Djiboutians have been detained – including prominent leaders of the opposition – and at least six protestors have been killed.
Guelleh’s freedom fallacy
The elections in February had been seen as a step in the right direction by the opposition. The UMP’s incredible 2003 victory – in which the president’s candidates secured all 65 seats thanks to gerrymandered constituencies – provoked a boycott of the political process by opposition groups, handing Guelleh’s party an easy victory again in 2008.
In 2013, the opposition were promised a fairly contested election and early signs were positive. In the two weeks of campaigning ahead of election day, the opposition received a nominally unrestricted political platform. Significant opposition leaders, such as Daher Mohamed Farah, even returned to Djibouti after years of exile. Furthermore, the USN coalition offered a cohesive (and electorally promising) opposition to the UMP for the first time. “After 10 years of boycotts, [this election] was to test again whether the government accepts democracy”, explained UK-based USN leader Mahdi Ibrahim God.
When it was declared UMP had won 61.47% of the vote, however, the USN was outraged. The party criticised the government for announcing the results prematurely and levelled allegations of ballot stuffing and double voting. “We have a population of about 800,000 people. So the system knows everybody and their votes”, God told Think Africa Press. “They used police, and in the last hours [of the vote] they changed all boxes by force.” Popular protests erupted across the tiny nation, and have continued since.
In contrast to the atmosphere of relative openness before the elections, the demonstrations have been forcefully repressed. At least six protesters have been killed and hundreds have been incarcerated. In one case, the families of detainees – including women and children – were held for 72 hours after they tried to reach their imprisoned loved ones. Detainees include prominent opposition leaders such as Sheikh Bashir Abdourahim and two members of the Islamist Movement for Democracy and Freedom (MODEL). The unprecedented attack on the scholarly Islamic establishment stoked further public outrage, bolstering the USN’s support and triggering further retaliatory protests on 1 March.
Along with using force, the president has also called on the opposition to voice their complaints via the justice system, and to cease in their efforts to “create the conditions for civil war in our country”. He also pointed to the fact that over 60 independent election monitors observed the election and that the African Union contingent reported that the election was carried out under conditions of “total transparency” and said they had “observed neither fraud nor the stuffing of ballot boxes”.
However, addressing grievances through legal channels has already proved frustrating for the opposition, with their challenge of the election results disregarded on a technicality by the Constitutional Council, a body perceived to be close to the president.
Together against terror: Djibouti and the West
Considering the persistent reports of repression, many have lamented apparent media disinterest from the West. Djibouti may be a country few in the West know about, yet Western foreign policymakers have placed disproportionate emphasis upon the tiny nation as a strategic base for their operations in the Horn of Africa – particularly in combating piracy and the militant Islamists al-Shabaab in Somalia. Perhaps understandably, considering the higher profile crises on its doorstep, the West has treated Djibouti as little more than a tool in its arsenal – as a military base, launch pad for drone strikes, or venue for regional diplomacy – rather than a situation worth addressing in its own right. Furthermore, Djibouti houses Camp Lemmonier, the only US military base on the African continent.
“They are only looking after their own interests”, Mohamed, a member of the Djiboutian diaspora in the UK said of the international community. “There’s an American base there, a French base there, a Japanese base there. But the local people are not profiting from them being there whatsoever.”
Djibouti’s Western partners do give aid for things such as education, health and food security. For example, US Agency for International Development has promised more than $30 million while the European Commission has sent €41 million ($52 million) in aid to Djibouti since 2008. But the problem, according to many Djiboutians, lies in the channels through which the aid is received: namely President Guelleh.
“The money of the country is governed by the elite, by the president and his circle”, Djiboutian national Ahmad Jahari commented. “He’s been there since 1997 and there’s been no change whatsoever”, added Mohamed. “The young people are getting educated, but when they come to the age of getting a job there’s nothing there.”
Through coordinated campaigns in Western capitals, the Djiboutian diaspora hopes to gain official recognition from the international community and encourage Western governments to pressure Guelleh. “We are asking the US, French and UK governments to stop funding the dictators in Africa”, declared one demonstrator in London. These demonstrations have so far drummed up significant support within the Djiboutian diaspora, and leaders have reportedly held some low-level talks with Western governments.
In contrast, after a month of repression, the leaderless popular opposition within Djibouti is beginning to feel cowed. “A lot of our leaders are in jail, and they’ve been there for the last couple of months. Some have been given two or three years in detention”, Mohamed explained. “We are demonstrating to support our people back home.”
Out of reach of Guelleh’s security forces, the increasingly coordinated diaspora hope to sustain pressure on the regime and hopefully prompt the international community into action. The message Mohamed wants to bring to foreign governments is frank: “You can’t just go to Djibouti, have a chat with the president, and come back,” he says. “You have to look outside the box and see what people want, and work with the society there.” But with such a potently entrenched leader, and the current foreign dependency on Djiboutian stability, the global protestations of the USN may yet fall on deaf ears.